You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

What Schieffer Should Ask: The Internet and Foreign Policy

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, October 22 2012

The two presidential candidates aren't likely to get to this at Monday night's final presidential debate, but one revealing question CBS' Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer could ask is what role they think the Internet should play in conducting public diplomacy and in promoting freedom abroad.

The State Department's public diplomacy efforts took center stage on the campaign trail in mid-September when Mitt Romney erroneously blamed the Obama administration for apologizing, through a tweet, for American values in the wake of the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The statement in question, issued through a press release and Twitter, was actually issued several hours before the attack by a senior U.S. public affairs officer in Cairo -- without clearance from officials in the State Department's headquarters, according to The Cable, Foreign Policy"'s blog.

Nevertheless, the Cairo embassy incident is actually part of a broader global communications strategy of direct engagement that began under President George W. Bush, thanks in large part to then-Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James K. Glassman. One of the prime goals is to shape those citizens' perceptions of the United States and its policies rather than letting foreign governments or foreign media shape those perceptions for them. The less-than-favorable outcome of the Cairo embassy incident is one situation out of many in which the State Department has used social media to engage citizens of foreign countries. In China, the U.S. embassy constantly informs anyone paying attention just how bad the local air quality conditions are.

While Glassman and Jared Cohen helped to pioneer State's foray into social media and the use of technology to engage in 21st century diplomacy, members of the Obama administration have famously expanded those efforts to become far more encompassing under the leadership of Hillary Clinton and her senior innovation advisor, Alec Ross. A report issued this March by the Lowy Institute for International Public Policy detailed the extent of those efforts. For example, it states that the State Department has 150 full-time staff working in 25 different "ediplomacy nodes," in its headquarters, and that State maintains 200 Twitter handles.

The State Department's foray into providing dissenting citizens of foreign countries with tools to skirt censorship, as a Washington Post story recently reported, has become so successful that demand is overwhelming the bandwidth of those tools, and there's demand for more funding.

We've already seen how the Obama administration has expanded upon the Bush administration's initial ideas on what role the Internet can play in international relations. It would be interesting to hear what the Romney campaign team's ideas are, and also, how much autonomy embassy officials should have in using their discretion to engage with the rest of the world online.